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Preflight Interview: Jeffrey S. Ashby

A couple of weeks prior to scheduled launch, STS-93 Pilot Jeffrey S. Ashby took some time out from training to answer questions about the mission.

Click on the image to hear Jeffrey's greeting.

Jeff, STS-93 is going to be your first trip into space; can you give me a sense of how it's been for you to spend more than a year now training in a group of astronauts where you're the only one who's not been to space before?

It's been surprising to me that I haven't been treated like a rookie all year. In fact, I've been shown the same respect that's afforded to people that have flown many times. I'm with a great crew, and they made me feel very comfortable during the training.

Do you have any sense at this point of what you expect to feel as you experience that first shuttle launch? Have they given you any hints?

Well, as you can imagine, I've thought a lot about that. I am well aware of what I will see outside the window. I know how far I'll see, how quickly the Earth will move underneath me, and kind of what it will look like going by. I know about the sunrises and sunsets every forty-five minutes, so I have a sense for what the view will be like, but I don't know what I will feel when I actually see that in orbit.

When you were a little boy, were astronauts your heroes?

Everyone has heroes, and mine are similar to many people's. Neil Armstrong certainly was an inspiration. On a smaller scale, I was inspired by the way some of my teachers and friends achieved certain projects or goals; but today my heroes are the people that make the space program work. The thousands of technicians, laborers, engineers, and scientists that make it possible, not just for me to go to space, but for us to put a wonderful and very complex observatory into orbit. The credit really goes to them, and they are my heroes.

What was it that made you want to do this in the first place? To be an astronaut is a job that almost every little boy who grew up in the 60s wanted to have. Is that your story too?

It certainly is. I was five or six years old when the first manned space shots were made out of Florida, and I grew up with the Space Program. Each part of my childhood has memories of spacecraft launches, so I'm sure that growing up with the space program influenced me in some way to be where I am today. I believe that humans all have something inside that causes us to look upward at the horizon and wonder what is beyond. That feeling is very strong in me, and I think it's that feeling that has really brought me here.

Do you have any idea where that desire to want to know what's beyond the horizon came from?

I think that feeling is part of the human makeup. I don't think nationality or race matters. It may be stronger in some people than in others. Perhaps I had different experiences in my childhood that nurtured it and made it grow stronger. I grew up in a small town in Colorado with the "great outdoors" in my backyard, and I would always look out at the forest and wonder what was beyond the next gully or the next hill. I spent a lot of time exploring. Maybe that contributed.

Do you still enjoy spending time outdoors?

My passion is backpacking and if one day I could choose to do anything I wanted, besides fly in space, I think it would be to strap on a backpack, hike into the mountains, and fly-fish in the high lakes. It doesn't matter whether I catch anything or not, but just to experience being out in the woods where it's so peaceful and beautiful. That is definitely my primary hobby.

You have been assigned to a group where the Commander on your mission has been the focus of more public interest than usual because she's the first woman to ever command a space shuttle mission. How is she dealing with all the attention and keeping you and the rest of the crew on course to get ready to do your job?

Eileen is a wonderful person. She's very genuine and very warm. As a mother, a test pilot, and a shuttle Commander, she's doing very well. She has earned my respect and the respect of everyone in our office, and definitely deserves this opportunity.

You're going to be a part of an historic flight. It's the first space mission ever with a female Commander. To you, what's the historic significance of having a woman in this role for the very first time?

Much like other historical events in our history, it marks a milestone in progress. Our country has grown by rewarding people for their performance and not discriminating against their color or gender. In that regard, I think it marks advancement in our nation's maturity. I also believe that we are gradually getting away from idolizing people and focusing in on the true science of our space flights. In this case, we have a mission that has the potential to yield an enormous amount of knowledge to the people on Earth, and I'm very proud to be a part of that.

Your preparations for this mission have been extended because the target launch date was pushed back a couple of times due to problems with preparing the payload and other hardware. Have you and your crewmates been able to put the "extra" training time to good use?

Absolutely. You can imagine, as a rookie, that there is a tremendous amount for me to learn, and I have really been thankful for some of the extra time. It's given me an opportunity to learn certain things in a little more depth so that I'm really confident in what I'm doing. Also, the extra time has allowed us to look at every possible contingency and to come up with a plan in case any of these malfunctions occur.

The most recent postponement of the target launch date was due to the failure of an Inertial Upper Stage rocket during an unrelated satellite deployment back in April, but an IUS is to be used to put your primary payload into its final orbit. Can you tell us what the cause of the problem was with that April satellite launch, and why it is that you're confident that the IUS on your mission is going to work properly?

What we do know about the April launch is that the two stages of the upper stage rocket failed to separate so that when the second stage fired, it fired into the first stage and did not place the payload in the proper orbit. That's all we know right now. The investigation committee is still active and has not released the final report, so we don't know specifically what caused the stages to separate. We've been hearing rumors that they have found a pinpoint cause and have strong evidence to indicate what the failure was. We also know that they have inspected our IUS and they're confident that it will work properly.

The primary objective of this mission is the deployment of the Chandra X-ray Observatory. The Observatory is described as "a highly sensitive x-ray telescope, which offers scientists a greater understanding of the forces that created the universe and continue to shape it." This sounds pretty big.


First, give us a quick lesson on what an x-ray telescope is? Why do astronomers care about the x-rays that are in the universe?

I'll give you the pilot version since I'm not an astronomer. All telescopes gather energy coming from the universe and focus that energy to a point where a science instrument can analyze it and record the data. So, just like a visible light telescope receives information in the form of light, Chandra will receive energy in the form of x-rays. Those x-rays will be focused at a point on one of two scientific instruments, a camera or a spectrograph, that are at the "science end" of the instrument. X-ray astronomy is a very young science. We can't do it from the surface of the Earth because the atmosphere blocks and filters out the x-rays, so we must be in space to look at x-rays coming from the universe. Although x-ray astronomy began only about twenty years ago, it has made incredible technical progress. It has taken optical astronomy four hundred years to get to the point that x-ray astronomy will be at in a month or so, after the deployment of Chandra.

Give us a quick verbal tour of what you're going to deploy from the back of Columbia. Tell us a bit about how Chandra's designed to gather and record the x-ray information, as well as how it's going to get it down to the researchers on the ground.

Chandra itself is about thirty-five feet long, and the Inertial Upper Stage attached to it is about another twenty feet. So the entire stack just barely fits into the payload bay of Columbia. The stack weighs around 45,000 pounds. Once we're in orbit at about a hundred and sixty nautical miles altitude, we will tilt the stack up and run through a series of checks to make sure that Chandra and the upper stage are healthy. Then, it will be pushed out of the payload bay with springs, and into the same orbit that we're in. About an hour after that, the upper stage will fire and move Chandra out to the orbit that it needs to be in to do its work, which is an orbit of about 80,000 miles by 6,000 miles.

Eighty thousand miles? Why does Chandra need to go to an orbit that's almost a third of the way to the moon to do this work?

The instruments that Chandra uses are sensitive to the radiation that surrounds Earth. In order not to interfere with those instruments, Chandra needs to be outside of the area of radiation that surrounds our planet, meaning it will need to be in a very high orbit. It does dip inside of the radiation area surrounding Earth on the shallow part of its orbit. It's at that point that the scientists will downlink the data from Chandra and begin to analyze it. Then, as it sweeps out into the higher part of its orbit, Chandra will begin to work again.

Let's back up just a little bit. You started to tell us the story of how Chandra is going to be deployed. Could you explain in a little more detail? What are you going to be doing during the deployment on the first day of your flight.

The deployment of Chandra will happen about seven hours and seventeen minutes after launch, assuming everything goes well, so we're going to be very busy from the time the solid rocket motors light until Chandra coasts out of the payload bay. During that time we have to get into the correct orbit, get out of our spacesuits, reconfigure the entire orbiter for orbit operations, and then prepare the spacecraft to go by completely checking it out. As the spacecraft is readied to go, I will be up front sitting in the Pilot's seat and I will be the one that takes care of any malfunctions that Columbia may have. We certainly don't expect any. I will be one of the prime photographers, so I am responsible for filming part of the deployment, which will happen just before sunset on the sixth orbit around the Earth. I will also be operating some of the small computers on board, and supporting the folks that are actually flipping the switches to deploy Chandra.

What will the rest of your crewmates will be doing during that time?

The deployment is going to be spectacular. As we fly around the Earth the orbiter is actually on its side and traveling belly first around the Earth, Chandra will be tilted up out of the payload bay. What we see from the cockpit is Chandra looming out above us with the limb of the Earth behind it. It's very, very spectacular, and very beautiful. Chandra needs to be kept in the shade for thermal reasons, so the orbiter will actually be blocking the sun. As we approach the time of deployment, Chandra will be tilted up to 60°, and will then spring out and move slowly out over the top of the cockpit. It will move into the sunlight and be illuminated by [the sun] for the first time ever. The spacecraft itself is silver and gold with blue solar panels. It's absolutely beautiful. I expect it to be quite a sight. We'll watch as Chandra drifts out toward the limb of the Earth in the same orbit that we are in, then Eileen and I will conduct a series of small burns in order to separate from Chandra so that it can fire its upper stage.

Your mission with Chandra is then over, right?

Yes it is. Once the upper stage fires, Chandra will fly out to its final orbit, and we will reconfigure the orbiter and begin to do some of the other twelve or thirteen science experiments that we have to complete in the few days that we will be in space.

Tell me about the possibility of problems during the deployment. In all the time that you've been training, certainly you've trained for a variety of things that might go wrong with the scenario that you've just described to us. What are a couple of the critical failure scenarios for the deployment operation, and how are you and your crewmates prepared to respond to them?

We have spent a lot of time in the simulator practicing the deployment of this very expensive and incredible science instrument. When we train in the simulator, it's very rare that anything goes right, and so we have a lot of experience dealing with failures. Those failures can be electrical, they can be with communications, they can be mechanical, or the stack may fail to tilt up, but we have several contingency plans for each one of those malfunctions which we have trained for extensively. I'm very confident that we can handle just about anything that may happen. If something happens that is so complex that we do not have a practiced plan for it, then we will rely on the folks on the ground to develop a plan and let us know what to do. They are also very good.

One of the things that both you and the people on the ground have to keep in mind is that this needs to be done properly because you're not going to get a second chance, right?

That's correct. In order to do its work, Chandra has to be in a very high orbit which cannot be reached by the shuttle. That's why it's critical that we check Chandra and the Inertial Upper Stage very well before we deploy it. The loads during the first eight minutes of the flight are extreme, and if a failure's going to happen, it's most likely to happen during that time. Once we get into orbit, we're able to check out Chandra very thoroughly before releasing it on its five to ten year science mission.

The Chandra X-ray Observatory is the third telescope of four that are envisioned in NASA's Great Observatories Program. How does what Chandra can "see," or what it will examine in the electromagnetic spectrum, complement the observations that are being made by the other Great Observatories, the Hubble Space Telescope and the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory?

Each one of those observatories looks at a different wavelength of energy coming from the universe. There will be four satellites total that will cover a very wide spectrum. One of the more important roles of Chandra is to provide information that can then be compared to Hubble and the Gamma Ray Observatory. Hopefully, this will allow scientists to learn more about how old our universe is, how it's expanding, and what the future may hold for it.

Of course the Gamma Ray Observatory and the Hubble are already in orbit and already doing their missions. Are there lessons that the two previous facilities can offer to the engineers and the scientists who developed Chandra, particularly those who are aware of the problems with the mirrors on Hubble?

I know the engineers are quite familiar with the Hubble problems. Of course those problems have now been resolved through repair by shuttle crews. The Gamma Ray Observatory has been functioning quite well. The engineers are very intelligent people, and the scientists that developed Chandra have been working on the project for up to twenty years. It was in development for a long time, and a lot of thought has gone into it. I think the fact that we can check it out before releasing it into orbit will help give us the final confidence that it's really ready to go.

STS-93 is carrying another telescope during this mission called the Southwest Ultraviolet Imaging System. It is going to be used throughout the time you're in orbit. Give us a quick lesson on the kind of astronomical observations that can be made with this instrument on your mission.

The SWUIS telescope is a small telescope, it's only a couple of feet long. It attaches to the inside of the side hatch of Columbia looking out of the small window on the middeck. I believe the targets this mission for SWUIS are primarily planets. I know that we intend to look for objects inside of Mercury's orbit called Vulcanoids. This could be very interesting. The presence of those objects has been presumed, but it's never been proven, so there's some chance that we might be able to get an image of something that's never been seen before.

During the flight, the timeline calls for you and Eileen Collins to conduct a number of maneuvers for the orbiter in relationship to SWUIS. Tell me what is involved for you in doing that, and why you need to move the orbiter for this telescope to do its work.

The SWUIS telescope looks out the side hatch of the orbiter and it is pretty much fixed. It has a very limited range of motion because the window is so small. For each of the observations that SWUIS does, we need to point the side hatch of the orbiter at the planet or celestial body that Steve will be observing. What Eileen and I will do is take turns typing in the computer commands which will pitch, roll, and yaw the orbiter to point that window directly at the target so Steve can take the measurements.

There is another experiment on this mission that calls for a lot of piloting of the orbiter; more than many other missions seem to use. It is called the Fly Cast Maneuver, which is designed to test a maneuver that's planned for use on a shuttle mission scheduled later this year. Can you describe for us what the Fly Cast Maneuver is, and what you'll be doing when it's time to conduct these burns?

The STS-99 mission, which will launch sometime this fall, will be carrying a great radar setup in the payload bay. Part of that setup is a sixty-foot boom that sticks out of the side of the orbiter. As they're flying around the Earth, they will have to periodically reboost the altitude of the orbiter, and they do that with thruster firings. The fear is that the thruster firings will cause that boom to whip and snap and possibly structurally fail. To try to prevent this from occurring, the engineers have come up with a very clever scheme to fire the jets in a certain pattern that will control the flex of that boom much like a fly-fisherman would control the action of his fly rod. What Eileen and I will do is execute a preplanned and very accurately-timed set of inputs to the thrusters to evaluate the accelerations on the vehicle and make sure that these timings and pattern of firings will, in fact, cause the motion on the boom that we think it will. In essence, we are going to practice the maneuver for them and verify that it will control the sixty-foot boom like it is intended to do.

Tell me about one or two of the other payloads, or experiments, that are on the flight, particularly the ones that you're most interested in, or going to be involved with.

I've found, particularly as a pilot, that much of the science that is executed on the shuttle these days is very complex and very difficult to understand for someone with my background of flying. One of the experiments that I do understand well, and is also very interesting, is an experiment that involves aphids and ladybugs. We are taking a small container with some leaves and aphids, and the ladybugs that are their prime predator. I'm told that the ladybugs on Earth will climb up a stalk to capture the aphids, and the aphids will use gravity to assist them to fall off of the leaf to escape from the ladybug. The question is, how will these defense mechanisms work in the absence of gravity, and what will happen to the relationship between predator and prey? One of the things that extra time has allowed us to do is to come up with names for the four ladybugs that we have. I think they have been very appropriately named after The Beatles: John, Paul, Ringo, and George. We're taking these ladybugs up and we're going to release them and see what they do.

I know that another one of the experiments is to test out a treadmill that's being designed for use on the International Space Station, and your particular expertise and history in spaceflight is going to be put to use. Tell us about the tests on TVIS.

One of my roles on the shuttle is to fix the hardware, and that is something that I'm very good at. We have to actually build this treadmill on the middeck. Once we put it up, we become the subjects that have to evaluate the harness system. It is designed to hold you down to the treadmill and puts force on your legs while you run. Hopefully it will let us get better exercise while in space. A couple days into the flight, Michel and I will set up this treadmill system and then we'll get on it and run for about an hour. I'm trying to get in shape for this experiment. We'll complete this evaluation of the treadmill and hopefully come back with any adjustments that need to be made so that this thing can be fine-tuned before it's sent up to the space station to be used for the next twenty years.

We've had a chance here to talk in detail about the Chandra X-ray Observatory, as well as a number of the other experiments that you and your crewmates are going to be doing during the five-day mission. Finally, I'd like to ask you to help us put it all into perspective. If you talk to people outside of NASA who don't have expertise in what you're doing, how would you explain STS-93's role in advancing the goals of space exploration?

Chandra is one payload that is designed to contribute directly to life on Earth. It's designed to increase our knowledge of the universe. Many of the experiments that we do on the shuttle are done without a clear understanding of what we will find or learn. I think that is also very true with Chandra. There are a lot of things about the universe that we don't understand. We have a lot of theories that are yet unproven, and I believe that, much like Hubble, Chandra has the potential to completely stir up our notion about how the universe formed, how old it is, and what the future may hold for our universe and our planet. I'm very proud to be part of a mission that has the potential to contribute so much to the knowledge of mankind. It's a privilege and an honor to be part of the team.

Curator: Kim Dismukes | Responsible NASA Official: John Ira Petty | Updated: 04/07/2002
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